I recently received my new National Trust handbook and magazine through the letterbox. I was interested to see that they had enclosed the contents in a jacket informing me of their new online ‘My National Trust’ services. Apparently, this is a one-stop shop where you can manage your membership, keep a list of places you’d like to visit and download directions to their many sites. The jacket also includes some personal comments from NT members on places that are particularly special to them.
This got me thinking about the pull of special places and why they are important to us. I have no trouble with this concept, since I am a born and bred heritage-lover – places are important to me even if you take out the subjectivity of having a personal link or relationship with a place. I can get excited about buildings and landscapes that I have no personal connection to whatsoever! This is a primary reaction to the tangible elements of that place – what it looks like and where it is. A secondary reaction may follow that based on the intangible elements of the place – it’s story, its relevance in history, how inspiring it is, any personal memories made there etc. I may start with the former and go on to the latter, depending on what happens on that day and in that place. It is a very psychological process and goes beyond mere ‘bricks and mortar’.
This is the difference between myself and my husband, who I have, thus far, failed to convert into any semblance of a heritage fan. He can see the architectural aesthetic of a place or the beauty of a landscape, but he doesn’t really see it. He stops at the bricks and mortar. A castle is a castle, a house is a house, and a nice view is a nice view. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. He suffers from ‘heritage-blindness’ (it’s a terrible affliction!) So, you won’t be surprised to learn that he has no real sense of place, by his own admittance.
That is not to say that I think I am blessed with any sort of heritage ‘second sight’, but I do find it interesting that people’s experiences of different places can vary so enormously.
The 2009 Historic England ‘Heritage Counts’ research was entitled Sense of Place and looked at the role of the historic environment in how people feel about where they live (1). Interestingly, the research showed that those who actively engage in the historic environment are much more likely to have a stronger sense of place, both personally and on a collective scale. Clearly the strength of the historical story of a place is enough to reel people in and make them feel the pull that encourages them to either stay in that environment or keep returning to it. These feelings are strongly connected to a sense of identity and community – after all, who better to share these feelings with than like-minded people.
Going back to the NT – they have in recent years hit on this concept as a way of informing visitors of the historic stories at their properties. Every site in their portfolio has a ‘Spirit of Place’ document. It is an internal document that captures all of the intangible elements of a site – those things that are so hard to define, but are key to how a place makes a person feel – so that the site can be interpreted in the most accessible way to the widest possible audience. It is the first reference point for decisions regarding how a site is interpreted and what stories are told to visitors. Not only this but they also use the ‘Spirit of Place’ document to inform their own work and key management decisions regarding the site. Without the ability to transcend the intangible to their audiences, many of the NT’s sites would be at risk of becoming ‘just a nice view’ or ‘just a big house’, so capturing the essence of every place is key to their ongoing success.
Ultimately it is people who give a place value and identity. It is their stories, memories and the many layers of history of a place that give it its worth. Really it has nothing to do with place and all to do with people.
Heritage Counts 2009, English Heritage (2009) Available from: https://content.historicengland.org.uk/content/heritage-counts/pub/HC09_England_Acc.pdf